Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Joni Mitchell at 71: Always attending to her imagination

Joni Mitchell / Self portrait of a true original 

Last weekend, I read with great interest an online interview with the singer-songwriter-artist Joni Mitchell in Maclean's, the Canadian national weekly current affairs magazine. In it, she confessed: "I don't watch news. I'm not a fish so I don't want to get caught in the net so I'm not on the web. I only use my iPhone as a camera, I don't even know my number."

Interviews with Mitchell are rare. However, the Canadian-born Mitchell has surfaced from her Los Angeles residence to drum interest in her latest project, a box set called Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, a Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced. Released this week, it combines her career as a Grammy-winning musician with being a painter and a dance enthusiast in collecting 53 songs from her 40 years of recording. Mitchell curated the collection, designed the package which includes six new paintings, and wrote an autobiographical text illuminating her recording process.

I've been fond of Mitchell's music going way back to my university days as a student at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota and as a disc jockey for the college's WMCN-FM radio station. While I have an appreciation for Mitchell's folk music roots -- her 1970 album Blue is a must-listen -- I've always been attracted to her jazzy side, which surfaced in 1974 with Court and Spark and a year later with The Hissing of Summer Lawns, my two favorite Joni Mitchell albums.

During her Maclean's interview with the writer Elio Iannacci, the 71-year-old Mitchell referred to the younger generation as the "push-button generation of today." She was asked: "What is impairing us the most?" She answered matter-of-factly: "Everything is about channel changing. It has ruined attention spans. I spaced out in school but I didn't develop attention-deficit issues because I placed attention on my imagination and ignored the curriculum," said Mitchell.

"I didn't have a million news feeds to contend with. It is just like when I have people to my house to watch a film -- it's like living in a Robert Altman movie! They are always talking over each other. We are all losing the plot. It's an addiction to phones and too much information."

Speaking of an addiction to our phones -- and, by extension, to too much information -- in last Saturday's The New York Times, contributing writer Timothy Egan hit upon a theme of digital narcissism in his opinion article "Grand Tour of the Self." He wrote: "Technology, when it shrinks the globe, or makes life less burdensome, or provides easier access to knowledge, is a wonderful thing. The smartphone has dramatically changed the world, mostly for the better. The jet aircraft opened far reaches of the planet to average people. And the selfie stick, as a simple device to take a better portrait, is largely harmless.

"But when technology changes the travel experience itself -- from immersion and surprise to documentary one-upmanship -- it defeats the point of the journey. We travel to freshen senses dulled by routine. We travel for discovery and reinvention."

Thanks to the popularity of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we've allowed everyone to become the star of their own movie in their "twenty-teens." Additionally, foodies have become obsessive about photographing what they eat -- especially when dining out -- and posting it online for instant gratification.

Maybe, we have become victims of "nature deficit disorder," so called because in the words of Egan, it's "a symptom of being connected to everything, while being unable to connect to anything."

Which brings us back to Joni Mitchell and the repercussions that future generations face now that everyone spends so much time on their smartphones. She told Maclean's: "My grandson and I were sailing on a boat and he said, 'It's boring.' I asked, 'How can you say it's boring? The sun is shining, we're going across the water so fast...' And he said, 'Not fast enough.' Technology has given him this appetite."

Fortunately, spending half of each year in the province of British Columbia enables Mitchell an opportunity to escape American culture and step away from the "star-making machinery behind the popular song" while returning to her Canadian roots. "I just drop off in the bush. My life has been somewhat overstimulated so I'll never get bored.

"I don't belong to this modern world and I'm out of it, but I don't want in."

Joni Mitchell self-portrait courtesy of jonimitchell.com.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Grace Cathedral at 50: Defining beautiful architecture

A San Francisco sacred space / Grace Cathedral turns 50 this week.

How does one define beautiful architecture?

"Space has always been the spiritual dimension of architecture," the 20th century Canadian architect and urban planner Arthur Erickson once said. "It is not the physical statement of the structure so much as what it contains that moves us."

Grace Cathedral is the third
largest Episcopal cathedral
in the United States.
One of my favorite spaces in the entire world -- and one that I've experienced many times during the past two decades -- sits tall atop Nob Hill in San Francisco. The vibrant city's famous cable cars pass by it on the California Street side of this sacred space. It's a place that I return to often on Sundays, especially during Lent for Easter Sunday and in the season of Advent to worship on Christmas Eve. 

That space is Grace Cathedral, a place to explore; a place to go deeper in one's faith. It is the third largest Episcopal cathedral in the nation, and this week, Grace Cathedral turns 50.

Each time I climb the staircase that frames the cathedral's entrance on Taylor Street and enter this sacred space, I am moved by the beauty of the cathedral's French Gothic architecture, designed by Lewis P. Hobart; the Ghiberti Doors that are opened for special occasions; and the vaulted ceiling arches. There is much to admire in this exalted sacred space -- and photograph, too.

The Keith Haring AIDS Chapel altarpiece.
There's the lyrical Rose window above the main entrance with its the colorful prism-like reflections of light beaming through it and through the stained-glass windows, bathing the pillars and indoor labyrinth in beautiful colors.

There's the historical aisle murals that were painted by Polish painter Jan Henryk De Rosen between 1949-1950 and composed in a style blending the stylistic elements of early Italian masters Giotto and Mantegna.

And, there's the Keith Haring AIDS Chapel altarpiece.

Colorful prism-like colors beam
through the stained-glass
windows onto the indoor
labyrinth at Grace Cathedral.
Cathedrals have long been places of pilgrimage, and Grace Cathedral is celebrating its past, its present and its sustainable future. Work was begun on the present cathedral structure in 1928 and its completion and consecration took place in 1964. Duke Ellington performed his televised Concert of Sacred Music inside Grace Cathedral on September 26, 1965.

I enjoy worshiping at Grace Cathedral, absorbed by its sacred space, which is defined by the beauty of its art, including its medieval and contemporary furnishings. There's also the echoing sound of the majestic Æolian-Skinner pipe organ; the 44 bell carillon, and the harmonious voices of the Choir of Men and Boys.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Of course, the homilies are meaningful, whether delivered by the Dean of the Cathedral, a visiting theologian, or by a guest homilist such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall or the playwright Anna Devere Smith.

And, they are always thought provoking, too.

Marcel Proust wrote how "Love is space and time measured by the heart." 

In Grace Cathedral, a house of prayer for everyone, I find solace here each time I visit.

And I know God's generous love awaits me.

To learn more about Grace Cathedral:

All photographs by Michael Dickens, © 2014.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Laughing out loud: Remembering Tom Magliozzi

Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers / For 25 years, brothers
Ray and Tom Magliozzi hosted NPR's Car Talk together.

During a 1999 commencement speech to the graduates of M.I.T., Ray Magliozzi, the longtime co-host of NPR's Car Talk with his older brother Tom, shared this bit of wisdom and advice: "I just want to encourage you to never get so involved in your work, whatever it is, that you forget to have fun."

What great advice that each of us should heed, no matter our age. Simply, have fun.

At the same M.I.T. commencement, Tom Magliozzi shared his research that he claimed provided evidence that “being unencumbered by the thought process” leads to greater happiness.

Each week for 25 years, through some 1,200 hour-long episodes each beginning with mandolinist David Grisman's bluegrassy theme song, "Dawggy Mountain Breakdown," Tom and Ray Magliozzi (pronounced mal-YOT-zee) shared not only their happiness, but also a lovable crankiness, plenty of good self-deprecating humor and a whole lot of uncontrollable laughter with their nationwide NPR (National Public Radio) audience that numbered in the millions here in the United States.

Come Saturday morning, we turned on our radios religiously and were treated to a good soul cleansing. 

While the premise of their radio show, Car Talk, was about cars and mechanical repairs, the warmth and humor exuded by Tom and Ray -- not to mention their expert advice about the importance of cars and an appreciation of life -- was timeless and enduring. 

"Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers" as the personable Magliozzi brothers were nicknamed, became like family to us and we trusted them and they welcomed us into their "home" via the radio each week for an enjoyable hour of banter and good jokes. From it all came a lot of memorable one-liners like their signature "Don't drive like my brother," spoken by each at the end of each Car Talk show in a distinguishable Boston accent. The affectionate Magliozzi brothers grew up in a large Italian family in East Cambridge, Mass., and both graduated from M.I.T.

Tom Magliozzi / Enjoying a
good laugh.
On November 3, Tom Magliozzi, 77, passed away from complications from Alzheimer's disease. He died at his home outside Boston.

In a letter to public radio listeners of Car Talk, Ray Magliozzi wrote of his brother: "We can be happy that he lived the life he wanted to live; goofing off a lot, talking to you guys every week, and primarily, laughing his ass off."

Although Tom and Ray (who is 12 years younger) stopped making original episodes of Car Talk in 2012, we are fortunate to have "classic" episodes of Car Talk we can listen to each weekend via NPR and through podcasts, too. The show and its infectious laughter lives on. 

In a remembrance of Tom Magliozzi that aired on NPR's All Things Considered last weekCar Talk's executive producer, Doug Berman, said that when it came to cars, the brothers really did know what they were talking about. Yet, it's not why people listened to the show. "I think it has very little to do with cars," said Berman. "It's the guys' personalities. And Tom especially -- really a genius. With a great, facile mind. And he's mischievous. He likes to prod people into honesty."

Magliozzi's NPR colleague, Peter Sagal, host of NPR's weekly news quiz Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, writing for Time, said that laughter "was Tom's great gift. All that raucous, distinctive laughter -- who knew you could laugh with a Boston accent? -- was genuine. Whether he was laughing at his brother or a caller with a car problem or his own silly jokes, his pleasure was too immense to be kept private. Everybody knows that Car Talk wasn't about cars. It was about Tommy Magliozzi and his little brother Ray, as they continued their life-long refusal to take each other, themselves, or anything else seriously. And by sheer force of will the self-regarding gray edifice known as public radio eventually did the same."

Sagal added: "Tom was opinionated, passionate, and occasionally profane, but very much the man he seemed to be on the air. He leaves behind his brother and a large family, but also millions of listeners he convinced -- if only for an hour a week -- to just relax and enjoy themselves as much as he did."

While we all share in the sadness of Tom Magliozzi's passing, just like we do when there's a death in our own family, one thing's certain: While he was alive, standing tall, bearded and friendly, Ray's big brother never forgot to have fun.

We should all be so fortunate. 

God rest ye merry gentleman, Tom Magliozzi.

Photos: Ray and Tom Magliozzi, together, courtesy of Google images; Tom Magliozzi, courtesy of Car Talk Facebook page.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tunisia: Always a sense of hope for a better future

My Facebook friends in Tunisia awoke on Sunday to vote in national legislative elections that will lead to a permanent Parliament being seated. In the almost four years of transition since initialing Arab Spring in this proud North Africa republic -- the smallest country in the Maghreb region -- "despite political assassinations, an emerging insurgency and economic discontent," in the words of The New York Times, there has always been a sense of hope for a better future for Tunisia. 

In my many conversations with my dear Tunisian friends, I have tried to express how democracy can be a beautiful thing, but that it can be a slow process, too. I am proud that several of my friends became involved in the democratic process. Some canvassed for various political parties vying for power such as the well-organized, moderate Islamist Ennahda Party and the secular liberal party Nida Tunis (Tunisia Calls), while others volunteered their time on Election Day working at polling places in cities such as Beja and Ben Arous. Also, a long-time friend of mine has been politically active with the watchdog group I Watch Tunisia, which strives to preserve the gains of the Arab Spring revolution through monitoring political activities for transparency while also educating the electorate. She summed up her feelings on her Facebook page in a single word -- "excited".

As my university-educated friends exercised their democratic right to vote -- and I know many of them expressed to me how proud they were to get out and vote on Sunday -- it gave each a chance to reflect on the state of their beloved country and, importantly, vote their conscience. Together, I know each wants to help make Tunisia a model for moderation, tolerance and democracy in their region of the world. Considering the plight of neighboring Libya and what has befell war-torn Arabic countries like Egypt and Syria, there is much pride in and hope for Tunisia today.

Just last week, Lonely Planet, the largest travel book publisher in the world, named Tunisia as its best value travel destination for 2015, noting that "as the tourism industry begins to recover since some travel warnings have been dropped, the North African destination offers beautiful beaches, as well as cheap and reliable transport. It's modern capital Tunis also reflects its long Ottoman history, and there are Roman remains dotted around the North to be explored."

From my side of the world, I feel the pride and share the hope of my dear Tunisian friends. Sunday was a first step in a journey that continues next month when presidential elections are held. By all accounts, Tunisia's parliamentary election day was free, fair and peaceful -- from Tunis to Mahdia, from La Marsa to Sfax, from Kasserine to Gabes. The returns point to an electorate that wants security and stability -- not to mention a strong economy and a focus on education that will lead to meaningful jobs for university graduates. Based on early election returns and exit polling, it appears that Nida Tunis has won 35 percent of the seats of the 217-member parliament, giving it the right to form a governing coalition. 

God bless my dear Tunisian friends on their historic Election Day. It's just a reminder there's always a sense of hope for a better future.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How We Got to Now: The power and legacy of great ideas

How We Got to Now / The history behind
everyday objects that are a part of our
contemporary life.

Steven Johnson is a bestselling author of nine books, including Where Good Ideas Come From, a founder of a variety of influential websites, and the host and co-creator of the PBS and BBC series How We Got to Now. His newest book is my current reading project, the just-published How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World.

It is cerebral fun.

In How We Got to Now, Johnson explores the power and legacy of great ideas by investigating the secret histories -- innovation trails -- behind everyday objects that are a part of our contemporary life. He examines "unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated fields: how the invention of air-conditioning enabled the largest migration of human beings in the history of the species to otherwise uninhabitable cities such as Dubai and Phoenix; how pendulum clocks helped trigger the industrial revolution; and how clean water made it possible to manufacture computer chips."

Each of the six innovations that made the modern world, according to Johnson -- glass, cold, sound, cleanliness, time and light -- garners attention in How We Got to Now. 

"Johnson is a polymath," wrote the Los Angeles Times. "It's exhilarating to follow his unpredictable trains of thought. To explain why some ideas upend the world, he draws upon many disciplines: chemistry, social history, geography, even eco-system science."

In the book's opening chapter about glass, for instance, Johnson writes: "Mirrors appeared so magical that they were quickly integrated into somewhat bizarre sacred rituals: During holy pilgrimages, it became common practice for well-off pilgrims to take a mirror with them. When visiting sacred relics, they would position themselves so that they could catch sight of the bones in the mirror's reflection. Back home, they would then show off these mirrors to friends and relatives, boasting that they had brought back physical evidence of the relic by capturing the reflection of the sacred scene. Before turning to the printing press, Gutenberg had the start-up idea of manufacturing and selling small mirrors for departing pilgrims.

"But the mirror's most significant impact would be secular, not sacred. Filippo Brunelleschi employed a mirror to invent linear perspective in painting, by drawing a reflection of the Florence Baptistry instead of his direct perception of it. The art of the late Renaissance is heavily populated by mirrors lurking inside paintings, most famously in Diego Velázquez's inverted masterpiece, Las Meninas, which shows the artist (and the extended royal family) in the middle of painting King Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Spain. The entire image is captured from the point of view of two royal subjects sitting for their portrait; it is, in a very literal sense, a painting about the act of painting. The king and queen are visible only in one small fragment of the canvas, just to the right of Velázquez himself: two small, blurry images reflected back in a mirror.

"As a tool, the mirror became an invaluable asset to painters who could now capture the world around them in a fare more realistic fashion, including the detailed features of their own faces."

Who knew!

In reviewing How We Got to Now, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: "Monks transcribing religious manuscripts in the 12th and 13th centuries began using pieces of crystal the better to see their work with, and so spectacles were born. And then came Gutenberg, whose printed books created a bigger market for them. In 1610, Galileo used a crystal lens to make the telescope, through which he observed moons orbiting Jupiter, and from there came the doctrine-shattering revelation that the Earth is not the center of the universe.

"The discovery had a reverberating impact that is still being absorbed today. Not only did it reveal a truth about the physical world, it reflected back on the human sense of our place in time and space."

Walter Isaacson, the author of Steve Jobs, calls Johnson "the Darwin of technology. Through fascinating observations and insights, he enlightens us about the origins of ideas."

By connecting all of the important dots through the centuries, Steven Johnson takes us on a wonderful journey through time and innovation. And, in doing so, he makes learning about science and technology great fun.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Songs of Innocence: U2's most generous album giveaway

Free music / U2's Song of Innocence

On the same September day that Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, unveiled his company's iPhone 6 earlier this month in Cupertino, Calif., U2 made a surprise appearance that shook the world and left 500 million iTunes subscribers with a little some extra in their library, the supergroup's new album Songs of Innocence.

I welcomed the opportunity at downloading the latest music from Bono -- getting my hands on something free that otherwise would have cost me at least $9.99 or more. I've listened to the entire album at least half a dozen times in the three weeks since I added the album on Sept. 9, the first day of its release, to my iTunes library and iPod. And, there's lots to like on Songs of Innocence. There's plenty of Bono's confessions to go around for everyone.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bono said, "We wanted to make a very personal album. ... Let's try to figure out why we wanted to be in a band, the relationships around the band, our friendships, our lovers, our family. The whole album is first journeys -- first journeys geographically, spiritually, sexually. And that's hard. But we went there."

However, within a few days of its release (Apple owns a five-week distribution and streaming exclusivity), which Cook marketed as "the largest album release of all time," I came to realize that my enthusiasm for U2 -- I've always really, really liked that band -- placed me in a minority. Initially, there was a backlash via social media that caused a bit of controversy.

"Who is U2 and why are they sending me their spam music files?" voiced one disgruntled recipient.

It hasn't always been easy to remember that fact that many, many people really like U2 "amid the caustic -- and often hilarious -- responses to the band's Sept. 9 release of Songs of Innocence," wrote Time magazine in a recent cover story.

According to Time, "U2's decision to team up with Apple to deliver the new album to every iTunes subscriber, unasked, raised valid questions about consumer choice and personal space in a world that routinely infringes on both. Moreover, while Apple paid U2 for the album, critics of the deal suggest this point may have been lost on iTunes customers who got it for free (including yours truly). If so, that messaging is certainly at odds with U2's intentions."

In analyzing Apple's U2 mistake for Forbes, contributor Bobby Owsinski wrote: "For U2, the motivation here appears to be all money. There's been no mention anywhere of exactly how much Apple paid the band for the album, but it was mostly likely far more than they could ever have expected had they released in conventionally.

"In fact, this album release appeared to be a last minute decision since there have been reports for some time that the band had postponed its release until 2015 and had pushed the tour schedule back to coincide. With no current tour, U2 can't capitalize on either the album or the current hype surrounding it."

The lead single on Songs of Innocence, "The Miracle (of Joe Ramone)", is currently being featured in an Apple TV commercial  that's part of a promotional campaign for the band on which Apple is spending $100 million.

"Being part of a $100 million ad campaign is always nice though, but again, to what end?" asks Owsinksi. " It's not about brand building since their brand is well-established, and they're not promoting anything at the moment, so it must have been a good chunk of change that Apple slid into the band's coffers.

"So it looked like both parties were off the mark here, although in a couple of weeks we'll all have forgotten about it and moved on to other things."

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Modernism: Every picture has a story

A rare opportunity / Modernism comes to the de Young.

Imagine having a rare opportunity to to see one of the most important gifts of modern art ever made to our nation.

On a recent Friday night, my wife and I visited the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park to see Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: The Robert & Jane Meyerhoff Collection. It is showing in the Herbst Exhibition Galleries through October 12.

Ellsworth Kelly / Orange Green (1966).
The de Young is the sole venue for this collection, which encompasses many of the finest works by Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella, among many -- one of the most representative collections of American painting from the postwar period. It also includes a rare display of Barnett Newman's 15-painting modern art masterpiece The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani. 

Modernism represents the first time that "a significant portion" of the Meyerhoff Collection has been shown outside of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. And, of course, it only adds to the prestige of impressive shows to come to the de Young and its sister museum, the Legion of Honor, in the past year. They include: Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966; David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition; The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita and Beyond, 1950-1990; and Anders Zorn: Sweden's Master Painter. Added up, these special exhibitions have helped draw more than 1 million visitors to these San Francisco museums between July 2013 and January 2014.

Walking through the exhibition galleries at the de Young to see Modernism, I was surprised to see that not only was photography allowed -- often it isn't during special exhibitions -- it seemed to be encouraged. After all, every picture has a story -- and I was only all too glad to be able to photograph many of my favorites.

Roy Lichtenstein / Painting with Statue of Liberty (1983).

According to Fine Arts magazine, "In the late 1950s, the Baltimore-based real estate developer and philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff and his wife, the late Jane Meyerhoff, began collecting art by the then-emergent Abstract Expressionists, acquiring paintings and works on paper by Grace Hartigan, Hans Hofmann, and Clyfford Still. Works by Josef Albers, Joseph Cornell and Ad Reinhardt -- artists who rose to prominence in the wake of World War II -- were also among the couple's earliest acquisitions. The Meyerhoffs then focused on the generation of artists who followed  the Abstract Expressionists -- Johns, Kelly, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, and Stella -- all of whom also became close friends of the pair." By the time of Jane's death, in 2004, the Meyerhoff's collection included more than 300 works in a variety of media by more than 50 artists.

Among the works that are featured in the de Young installation are: Perilous Night (1982) by Jasper Johns; Orange Green (1966) by Ellsworth Kelly; Painting with Statue of Liberty (1983) by Roy Lichtenstein; Picasso's Skull (1989-1990) by Brice Marden; Archive (1963) by Robert Rauschenberg, and Flin Flon IV (1969) by Frank Stella.

Observing / The Stations of the Cross.
Meanwhile, one can't help but notice the centerpiece of Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: Newman's The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani (1958-1966), which was presented within a large, dedicated room, "experienced as the artist intended, as a single work in an intimate, contemplative space."

Writing about Newman's The Stations of the Cross, San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker noted: "Newman saw himself as seeking and finding an abstract pictorial code for ultimate human concerns: the polarities of light and darkness, of wholeness and transience, despair and longing for redemption, living and dying.

"Sighting back from our own grossly materialistic moment, across the watershed of minimalism, we may find it hard to take Newman's aspirations seriously, but the paintings still produce the sort of elevated feeling that people frequently say they seek in art."

Indeed, every picture has a story.

Let the conversation begin!

All photographs by Michael Dickens © 2014.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

It's summer vacation time ... see you in a week!

In Shakespeare Garden / Enjoying a quiet evening's walk alone with nature
and the Bard in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park 

It's late summer, a time of the year when many of us here in the U.S. take a week's vacation to rest, relax, rejuvenate and enjoy a break from routine.

As we head into the Labor Day weekend, I've decided to take the week off from my blog and enjoy a walk in the park, both literally and figuratively.

See you in a week with some thoughts about Modernism from the National Gallery of Art, an exhibition whose sole venue is the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

Editor's note: Vacation travel can do wonders to one's body, mind and spirit. I enjoyed it so much I decided to take an extra week off from my blog. It will return on Tuesday, Sept. 9. Cheers.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Jason Collins: Comfortable in his own identity and skin

Jason Collins in conversation at the Commonwealth Club /
"Now that I have this voice and platform, I want to speak out
for all of the of the gay athletes out there."

At 7-feet tall, Jason Collins easily stands out in a crowded room not only for his height but also for his skin color. Yet, it's his personality and intellect that draws your attention toward him.

Last year, Collins became the first openly gay active male athlete in major American professional sports when he came out in a highly publicized personal essay published in the May 6, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine.

"Depending on the situation," Collins laughs, "I'm not always the gay one. Sometimes, I'm just the tall one, or the black one. When I turn heads, is it because people know I'm gay, or is it because I'm a seven-foot-tall African-American man?"

Last week, speaking in front of an audience of nearly 600 young professionals at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco for the Commonwealth Club's InForumSF conversation series, Collins shared the stage with journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and spoke candidly for 75 minutes about his journey of self-discovery and self-acknowledgement, and how coming out of the closet in a machismo professional sport powered by super stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant has changed his life.

"I just spoke to a group of NBA rookies and I had to explain what LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) stood for." While some in the audience snickered at the ignorance of it all, it prompted Collins to speak up: "It's all about education and exposure. Some guys have had no education and exposure to the LGBT community."

After he came out in April 2013, Collins waited patiently for a phone call from an NBA team who was willing to take a chance on the 255-pound veteran center -- a consummate professional and veteran of six pro teams who's appeared in two NBA finals, and who just happened to be gay. Certainly, there was bound to be one team willing to take a chance on the free agent. Finally, the Brooklyn Nets contacted Collins last February and signed him to a contract for the back end of the 2013-14 season, where he averaged 1.1 points and 0.9 rebounds.

For much of his pro basketball career, Collins has worn number 34, the same number he wore in college. However, after being traded to Boston and later Washington, then signing with Brooklyn, he chose a different number. "I needed a jersey number to go with my new identity," Collins said. "I went with 98 for the year 1998: the year Matthew Shepard died and the year the Trevor Project was founded."

Despite the personal fulfillment he's achieved, Collins believes there's still a stigma of homophobia in the NBA. "I used to hear that kind of talk a lot in the locker room," he said. "Since I came out, I don't hear it at all. Of course, that might have something to do with it being a $25,000 fine now. I tell guys, you don't have to be politically correct -- you just have to find more creative ways of cutting each other down."

Collins says matter-of-factly, at least one unnamed player trash-talked him during a game after he came out. "Yeah, he's a knucklehead. My attitude about that is: I'm going to foul you. Hard."

While some have labeled the Stanford University graduate as the "big brother San Francisco never had," the polite and affable Collins admits that at times he still feels like the new kid in school, still getting comfortable with his new identity and celebrity. He credits a gay uncle for being his personal role model and said that he's garnered moral support from fellow Stanford alums like U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, who was his college roommate, and from Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was his classmate. He also gives props to prominent gay athletes like Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King for being trailblazers as well as sharing their wisdom and advice with him.

Although he can laugh about it now, Collins confessed to the audience: "I didn't kiss a man until I was 34-years-old." On dating for the first time, he said: "Having my heart broken, something that most people go through for the first time in high school, didn't happen to me until I was 34. There was a lot of accelerated learning curve going on there. The Stanford student in me wants to say: 'Okay, we're going to master this.'"

Before he came out publicly, Collins had been in an eight-year relationship with fellow Stanford alumnus and former WNBA center Carolyn Moos. The two were engaged to be married, but Collins called off the wedding in 2009.

Looking back, Collins said coming out to his family was a positive experience filled with love and respect. He recalled his first conversation about being gay with somebody outside of his family circle happened when he told his long-time agent Arn Tellem. "I called my agent. Now, normally, when a player calls an agent after a trade, it's to fire him. But I said 'I've got something to tell you: I'm gay.' He said, 'Well, Jason, you can still play.'"

While there's still a competitive fire in him, Collins told the audience he's undecided about whether to play another season in the NBA. With a lucrative, multi-million dollar endorsement from Nike, Collins realizes he can be as much a positive impact off the court as on it by speaking out on issues like equality and education as well as sustainability and health and fitness. He has a positive story that's worth sharing with others.

"Now that I have this voice and platform, I want to speak out for all of the gay athletes out there," Collins said. Seemingly comfortable in his own identity and skin, Collins is reaching equality both on and off the court by becoming an ambassador for acceptance and peace. In April, Collins was featured on the cover of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World."

Reflecting on his life as a professional basketball player, Collins said: "Thirteen years is a long career for an athlete. "I used to be able to jump and touch the top of the white square behind the hoop with ease. As the years go by, you watch your hand go lower and lower on that square. Father Time is undefeated against us all.

"I'm really grateful for my Stanford degree now. On the other hand, I can still dunk."

Editor's note: On November 19, Jason Collins announced his retirement from professional basketball after 13 seasons in the NBA.

Photograph of Jason Collins at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco's Castro Theatre by Michael Dickens © 2014.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A tremendous challenge, a tremendous responsibility

Becky Hammon / "There have been so many other women that are doing
really, really great things, and I'm just kind of following in their paths."

Last week, the San Antonio Spurs showed why they're trailblazers in American professional basketball by announcing they've hired six-time WNBA All-Star point guard Becky Hammon as the first full-time, paid female assistant on an NBA coaching staff.

The reigning champion Spurs have been innovative, outside-the-box leaders in bringing in internationally-talented players for the past two decades -- France's Tony Parker, Argentina's Manu Ginobili and Australia's Patty Mills come to mind -- and, earlier this summer, hired European coach Ettore Messina to join head coach Gregg Popovich's staff. So, it was not surprising that fresh off winning their fifth NBA championship, the Spurs would add to their history of forward-thinking moves by hiring Hammon. 

Becky Hammon / She's a trailblazer on court.
Now, she's a joining the San Antonio Spurs as 

the NBA's first full-time female assistant coach.
At age 37, the 5-foot-6 Hammon is retiring this month from a 16-season playing career in the WNBA in which she ranks fourth in career assists and seventh in points scored. The South Dakota native starred collegiately at Colorado State where she was a three-time All-American point guard, then became a naturalized Russian citizen in 2008 and represented the Russian national team in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. She becomes the second woman to serve on an NBA coaching staff -- the first was Lisa Boyer, who was a part-time, non-paid member of the Cleveland Cavaliers staff in the 2001-02 season -- but the first who has been hired to a full-time, paid position.

"It's a tremendous challenge, and it comes with tremendous responsibility," said Hammon. "There have been so many other women that are doing really, really great things, and I'm just kind of following in their paths."

During the 2013-14 season, not only did Hammon attend Spurs practices, coaching meetings and film-review sessions, she also sat behind the bench for the NBA champions during home games while coming off a knee injury.

"I very much look forward to the addition of Becky Hammon to our staff," said Poppovich. "Having observed her working with our team this past season, I'm confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs."

Hammon said it was made clear to her by Poppovich that her hiring was strictly related to her qualifications in basketball. "He says, 'It just so happens you're a woman,'" said Hammon during a press conference.

In an interview with Jeré Longman of The New York Times, Hammon "called her role as a pioneer 'a tremendous honor.' But, she added of Popovich: 'Honestly, I don't think he gives two cents that I'm a woman. And I don't want to be hired because I'm a woman.' The important point, Hammon said, was 'I'm getting hired because I'm capable.'"

Another basketball trialblazer, Nancy Lieberman, who is the assistant general manager of the Texas Legends, the NBA Development League affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks, told The New York Times that Hammon's hiring "was a crucial step for the NBA and for women.

"First and foremost, this means respect," said Lieberman. "She did not get hired just because she is a woman. She was hired because she was qualified, because they know her personality, how she interacts with players, how she understands X's and O's."

"I think it's no surprise to anybody that they think a little bit different down here," said Hammon of the Spurs. Indeed, and as espnW columnist Kate Fagan wrote: "A very high, very thick glass wall cracked.

"Realistically, the league had no model in place for hiring a female coach; a team neded to be the first, to prove it could work. And it makes sense that San Antonio, the reigning NBA champs, a franchise that has always marched very effectively to the beat of its own drum, has stepped forward and done just that."

Other media reaction has largely been positive. San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Ann Killion wrote: "The Spurs are an organization that doesn't need fake publicity or splashy headlines. Hammon wasn't hired for looks or her Nike endorsement or her name; name many people outside hard-core WNBA fans and former Colorado State fans even know who she is.

"She was hired by the best head coach in the league. Gregg Popovich is a man who doesn't suffer fools, media, phoniness or distractions gladly. He hired Hammon because he thought she would do a good job. Period."

Killion's colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle, NBA columnist Bruce Jenkins, said of Hammon: "She could not be more ready to become the first female assistant on an NBA bench."

In his New York Times story, Longman noted that around the NBA, Hammon's hiring "has been met with wide congratulations. 'Very bright basketball mind,' Kobe Bryant posted on Twitter."

Even President Obama took time out to congratulate Hammon. The White House tweeted: "Congrats to @BeckyHammon, @NBA's first full-time female coach. When #WomenSucceed, America succeeds -- and we know the @Spurs will, too. -bo"

While naysayers might think of the Spurs hiring of Hammon as a publicity stunt, I don't. It's obvious that her hiring came after extensive research and interviews, and that the rest of the Spurs' staff would be amenable to what Jenkins labeled as Popovich's "brave new world."

Hopefully, Hammon's hire will open doors for other female coaches and prove there shouldn't be gender barriers anywhere. Kudos to the San Antonio Spurs. After all, they're a team that's ahead of the NBA in a league that's ahead of the game when it comes to racial and gender inclusiveness.

Photos: Courtesy of NBA.com and WNBA.com.